Lonely at the Top?

A review of Shinzo Abe’s premiership so far: where it’s been and where it might be going

By Peter Harris

Despite his poor position in recent polls, Japan’s premier seems to be enjoying his position six months into the job, even if he can’t always manage a smile. In his chatty newsletter on his homepage he writes of the “deep breath of fresh air” afforded him by his diplomatic visits abroad:

“In one European country I was received by a brass band playing the Japanese national anthem. On another occasion, I was welcomed by military police standing in perfect formation. In the Philippines, women dressed in colorful ethnic costumes and performed a beautiful dance for me.”

Such spectacles hopefully make up for some of the scathing reports in the Japanese media of late. The Asahi Shimbun reported in January that his approval rating has slipped from 47% to 39% and elsewhere the slump has been reported as steeper. One blogger speculates that at least 20% of his approval rating is down to the enthusiasm for his wife which, if true, makes the situation even bleaker. Much of the Japanese press puts the drop in popularity down to dissatisfaction with his lack of attention to social welfare, demographic problems and taxes, but also accepts that such a trough is natural at this time; few politicians manage to hang onto the brief approval conferred upon them by the fact of their new appointment. Nonetheless the administration is still in its early days and a lot can happen before the triennial election for the House of Councilors this summer.

Who’s his daddy?

To a certain extent we can learn a lot about Abe’s probable direction by taking a glance at his past. As Chief Cabinet Secretary in his predecessor’s government, and long groomed as Koizumi’s heir, it comes as no surprise that he has tended to follow existing policies rather than invigorating and innovating. In fact, he and his administration have been dubbed “Koizumi’s children” by the Japanese media as a result of their stoic adherence to the former prime minister’s policies. It is not only this metaphorical genealogy that tells us where he has come from and is likely to lead. A look at his actual family pedigree is illuminating. Great uncle Eisuke Sato was Prime Minister from 1964-1972 and Dad, Shintaro Abe, held the posts of LDP secretary general and foreign minister in his time. Most notorious was grandpa, former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, a member of the Tojo war cabinet and intimate of Chiang Kai-shek. All of them edged to the right and had a preoccupation with foreign affairs, the balance of the USJapan security alliance and Japan’s defense forces.

Shinzo Abe - 90th Prime Minister of JapanShinzo Abe - 90th Prime Minister of Japan

Fitting with such precedent, Shinzo Abe really made his name when he insisted on a hard line over the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea and disagreed with the Koizumi administration’s attempts to normalize relations. He then lived up to expectations in his call for the most stringent measures against Pyongyang during the missile-test crisis of July 2006. Whenever he speaks with reference to Kim Jong-Il his whole body contorts into a serious frown and no matter how much demonization of Asia’s shadiest communist state helps his own domestic agenda, it is hard to doubt his genuine distaste for the North Korean regime.

Having grown up in Tokyo and going on to graduate in political science from Seikei University, he spent two years studying at the University of Southern California during which time he also perfected his English. Like his political ancestors Abe sees Japan’s connection with the US as pivotal to its forward development in both the economic and military spheres. On coming back to Japan he spent some time working in the steel industry before winning his first seat in the Diet in 1993, as representative for Shimonoseki where he is immensely popular. It’s also the former constituency of his father and the town where the 1895 peace treaty was signed that affirmed Japanese victory over China and the start of Japanese rule over Taiwan.

One man and his dog

Of a conservative nature, Abe likes to play golf and has made public his affection for his dachshund Roy. In the run-up to his election Abe treated the media to a flurry of public appearances. In an effort to cheer up his image he even went on a comedy show and declared his love for ice cream. Nevertheless it is obvious that his character tends towards the serious and contemplative. His wife however, media darling Akie Abe (affectionately referred to as Aki-chan), makes up for any flamboyancy her husband may lack. A high society girl, celebrated for her dancing, drinking and general charisma, she has certainly added some color to Abe’s public persona.

Intellectually, Abe is committed to a firm ideology and has a clear vision for Japan, much of which was expressed in his book, 'Towards A Beautiful Country'. The principles are not dissimilar from those of the neo-conservatives in the US, minus the religious fervor and superpower self-consciousness. Human rights, free trade, democracy and the right to launch pre-emptive strikes against particularly roguish states are all key parts of Abe’s philosophy. More controversially he has made no secret of his plans to turn Japan into a 'normal' power–a country that can take responsibility for its own defense and not feel embarrassed about patriotism.

Can Japan be normal?

Dr. Christopher W. Hughes who runs the Centre for the Study of Globalization and Regionalization at the University of Warwick in the UK, and has written about Japan’s return to 'normalcy', said, in an exclusive interview for J@pan Inc., that he sees Abe as part of “a new generation of revisionists”. For this group of LDP politicians “the constitution has to be revised…Abe’s own political ideology makes for a strong impulse to revisit history”. This is behind such policy initiatives as his program of educational reform and will manifest itself, in the coming attempt, to change Japan’s constitution to include the right to collective self-defense. Such policies are not only contentious within Japan but will also raise eyebrows in China and South Korea. Dr. Hughes speculated that “further down the track Abe maybe driven to play the history card” at home in order to bolster his popularity. This would mean visiting Tokyo’s infamous Yasukuni shrine, an event that could see a return to the high temperature relations between Japan and its neighbors that developed under Koizumi. Abe is, however, more prudent and thus less likely to antagonize without taking considered advice on the issue. With close personal ties to the Taiwanese elite, Abe’s sympathy for Taipei may also irritate Beijing, but Abe doesn’t seem to have the “recklessness of Koizumi” despite what Hughes terms his “inherent suspicion of China”.

Abe doesn’t seem to have the “recklessness of Koizumi”

The dislike of Beijing and aversion to North Korea will also draw Abe towards Washington. He seems to think that the US may provide the rationale and the resources for the complete transition of Japan to 'normal' power status. However, he will be anxious lest a thickening of the alliance and a growth of responsibility render Japan an arena for any increased tension between the US and China. One analyst has characterized the latter two states as in the same bed, but dreaming different dreams. It is a deterioration of this fragile relationship that could be a real nightmare for Japan.

At home Abe is likely to plod on with Koizumi’s domestic policies, but has been criticized for his focus on foreign and education policies at the expense of the economy. With Japan’s debts amounting to at least 1.5 times the country’s GNP, it is natural that, many feel, he needs to come up with a stronger plan, one to bolster the economy and not to leave reform by the wayside. Persistence of bid-rigging scandals in the construction industry and repeated allegations of corruption over political funding are also responsible for the current decline in his popularity. Mr Honma, the tax chief, was dismissed after news broke about him keeping a mistress in a government apartment just before Christmas, and just a couple of weeks later, the minister for administrative reform Genichiro Sato resigned after it was revealed that a group of his backers had indulged in some highly creative accountancy. For much of the Japanese public, such issues are much more pertinent than constitutional reform and patriotic education initiatives.

Business as usual?

What then are the implications of Abe’s primacy for the foreign business community both inside and out of Japan?

For those foreigners investing in Japan there was much optimism back in 2001 when Koizumi announced a wide reaching program of reform. However, despite managing to make the steps towards privatization of the postal service and carrying out modest liberalization, some feel that he didn’t go far enough and are encouraging Abe to pay more attention in this area. Jakob Edberg, Policy Director of the European Business Council in Japan (EBCJ), sees Koizumi’s reputation as a reformer as “a lot of noise about very little”. He told J@pan Inc he hopes that Abe will not allow any more weakening of the reform commitment. Both his organization and the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan argue that foreigners looking to do business here face too many obstacles and unfair practices in many sectors. For example, the forthcoming legislation on trilateral mergers, Edberg describes as so "watered down" that it will provide little incentive for potential foreign investors. Whilst Japanese investors will be allowed to take advantage of tax deferral options, it looks less and less likely that the same privilege will be extended to foreigners. Blatent discrimination says Edberg, but Abe can’t afford to isolate domestic lobbyists on the other side of the debate, particularly at the moment.

In the financial sector, the EBCJ frets that foreign banks are restricted from offering a full range of services, pointing out that Tokyo lags way behind the multinational financial metropolises of Hong Kong and Singapore. Maybe so, but it’s unlikely that Abe was thinking of those two places when wrote the 'Towards A Beautiful Country'. Moreover, the government is connected by all kinds of strings to the big banks, both personal and financial, and is unlikely to fully surrender its influence over the Financial Services Agency and the Bank of Japan. Although Abe has resigned his factional membership since taking the top job, like Koizumi, he is most closely associated with the Mori faction and the ginko zoku (banking interests). So, there’s little chance that we’ll see him doing such things as amending the Securities and Exchange Law to allow foreigners into the securities market.

In the food industry, Edberg and others, bemoan the slow progress on proposed alterations to the food additives legislation. Japan agreed to revise its restrictions on 47 additives in 2002 (but has only changed 4 of them in the last 5 years) despite them being officially approved by a range of international agencies including the World Health Organization. Given Abe’s taste for Japanese school lunches and fermented soy beans (natto), it is unlikely that such issues are close to his heart even if he does have a weakness for ice cream. It's much easier to gain domestic favor by maintaining this stealthy, but essentially legitimate protectionism.

Generally however, Abe is committed to plans to increase foreign direct investment into Japan and is unlikely to alienate the foreign business community. Indeed, he may well look to them to help provide Japan with alternate sources of energy and release Japan from its slavish dependence on oil and the Middle East, as well as being a much needed capital resource. The challenge is to square further reform with enough guarantees to domestic interests that they won’t lose out.

Abe abandons caution in favor of a strategy of deliberately annoying China

Given his low popularity, Abe now faces tougher competition from the opposition, namely the Democratic Party of Japan fronted by Ichiro Ozawa. If that wasn’t enough to deal with, within his own party, ambitious men on the right such as Taro Aso are waiting anxiously to see his stance on Yasukuni. On the other hand, his program for constitutional reform may upset the more pacifist old guard, including, Yasuo Fukada who briefly posed a challenge to his smooth passage to the premiership.

Unless Kim Jong-Il lobs any surprise missiles across the Sea of Japan, or Abe abandons caution in favor of a strategy of deliberately annoying China, there isn’t much change on the horizon for Japan and foreign business interests here. Moderate reform is likely to trundle along as normal, but even the smallest of changes can offer the largest of opportunities and keeping a keen eye on the details may well pay off. JI

Peter HarrisPeter Harris

Peter Harris is a graduate of Oxford University who worked in Japan for two years on the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. He then returned to the UK and completed an MSc in International Politics of Asia at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. He is now living in Tokyo and is working as a freelance writer/researcher.

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